Voters going to the polls today in the California primary will find their ballots looking quite different from those in years' past.
But in statewide and local races, the competition under California's new open primary format is largely a sparring session ahead of the main event -- the General Election on Nov. 6 -- with party designations no longer a factor.
In years past, incumbent Congressman Pete Stark and challenger Eric Swalwell would have been fighting desperately by now to knock each other out in the newly formed 15th Congressional District that will serve all of Pleasanton, with the winner of next Tuesday's primary all but guaranteed a general election victory over token Republican opposition.
But today, barring a major upset, the two Democrats will emerge from a field of three candidates to form one of the most compelling tests of the system, in which the top two vote-getters move on to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.
The race for the newly redrawn 15th District, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, pits a moderate Dublin City Councilman and Alameda County prosecutor, Swalwell, against a liberal, seasoned Democratic Party loyalist who's been serving in Congress since 1973. The field is rounded out by a lesser-known candidate, Christopher Pareja, an Independent Party candidate with no previous public service experience.
Paul Mitchell, president of Redistricting Partners, a Sacramento consulting firm that has been tracking the realignment of California's political districts that resulted from voters' approval of Proposition 20 two years ago, says that it's campaigns such as the one here in the 15th that should serve as an intriguing early case study of the open primary. The conventional wisdom is that the system, by empowering the minority party, will benefit centrist candidates in districts that lean heavily Democratic or Republican.
That may be the case in other districts, but the 15th is an example of what happens when both top candidates are in the same party. Because both candidates are credentialed Democrats, both well-known in the new 15th District, it's almost certain these same two will also compete again in the Nov. 6 General Election. Although Swalwell is campaigning vigorously, Stark has met with his constituents in smaller receptions, like the one he had two weeks ago that was hosted by Pleasanton Mayor Jennifer Hosterman. Stark boasts of President Obama's endorsement; Swalwell can count on Dubliners and County Supervisor Scott Haggerty.
Of course, there's more to today's primary than the congressional race, no matter how you vote. In addition to Obama and Romney on the national ballot, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, first elected in 1992, is considered an easy winner against a long list of wannabee senators, including Feinstein's strongest challenger Elizabeth Emken.
Even the local race for supervisor for the Alameda County Board's District 4, now held by Nate Miley, may not be much of a contest. Miley has made frequent appearances in recent months before Pleasanton business, civic and real estate groups, gaining wider recognition and loud applause. His lone opponent is Tojo Thomas, a virtual unknown in Pleasanton until he launched an aggressive promotion and advertising campaign. He faces a tough fight in tomorrow's election.
The polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, but check your sample ballot and voter information pamphlet. With a small turnout projected, your regular polling place may have been consolidated with another.
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